Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Perils of Telling a Story Out of Chronological Order

A am both a reader and a writer of my chosen genres. It was first reading these types of stories that made me begin to imagine and then write my own. I do think being an avid fan is important, especially in speculative areas of writing. It is easy enough for me, since I really enjoy the subject matter, and have my own favorite authors and book series that I follow enthusiastically.

Recently, this brought me face-to-face with the idea of time lines, or chronologies, in stories and storytelling. This is a very important topic to me, since the main character about whom I have written the most is a time traveller. There is always the question of "what's the best order to tell this?" I want to maximize the impact of the story without confusing the reader.

Or perhaps alienating the reader.

One of the series of books I have been reading for many years is Stephen Brust's Jhereg (also called the Vlad Series.) (Warning, possible spoilers in this post about that series.) It appears that Brust is 12 books into what I think will be a 19 book series (one book for each "house" in the empire, with Taltos and a final wrap up book.) If 19 books sounds like a lot, I'll point out that these are not long books at all; they are only about 180 to 280 pages of mass market paperback. Taltos at 180 pages almost feels like a novella. But I'm used to carrying around the bricks written by C.S. Friedman, for example, which are in the 580 page range.

A six hundred page book stands some chance of keeping my attention for a while, because I do not merely read books, I eat them whole. I horde my favorite series books for trips and vacations, and then devour them in a single sitting. So I actually had three books from the Jhereg series on my shelf, unread, at the same time, just waiting for a good long plane flight on which to eat them. But I broke down the other day, and figured it was time to crack open the next in the series, Jhegaala, and get back into the story.

And now we come to the actual point of the post.

Jhegaala takes us back in time, into the main character's - Vlad's, past. This is not the first time this has happened, it is the fourth. So I should have been mentally prepared. I wasn't. Instead I was actually disappointed and peeved.  I put the book down in disgust the moment I realized what was going on. I said to myself, "I don't care about this. I want to know what is going on NOW."

Reading through the books has become a bit of a roller coaster, and in my view, not in a good way. Here's my diagram of said roller coaster.

We start at Jhereg, which the stars denote as "begin here." Next is Yendi, which instead of going forward, as one might expect after the first book in the series, it goes back. This wasn't too irritating since it went back immediately to the time before the first book, and answered some important questions.  Then we got back to the "real" story with Teckla. But then Taltos came out, and I had my first "what the heck" feeling. It is a good book on its own, but by now we are invested in the growing rebellion in the main city, as well as the situation between Vlad and his wife. This step back didn't work for me. It answered questions I wasn't thinking about. But fine, back story is good, on general principles.

Fortunately, three books in a row came in chronological order. And one of them, Aythra, is a particularly good book, perhaps the best in the series so far. So I calmed down, my faith restored, even when Orca wasn't quite as good. And then Brust gives us Dragon. Take a look at how far back this one goes. Serious, serious bummer. It had me thinking "when can I get back to the story I actually care about?" I read some of the beginning, trying hard to focus, but the story couldn't hold me. I skimmed it, just to make sure I wouldn't miss key plot or character elements, and then dropped it.

Brust then supplied two books in a row in chronological order. Issola does not deal with the story I had become invested in, but it does bring up some excellent issues with the origins of the species on the planet, and a nice battle with big bad guys. Dzur does in fact, finally, finally, deal with some of the story I wanted to learn more about, which got me back into the series, and happy once again.

Yet somehow I was not expecting Jhegaala. Which takes us four books back in the timeline. Again. I'm tempted to skip the book entirely, but don't want to miss a piece of back story the author is going to assume the reader knows. I have to say I feel tweaked by the whole process.

My point about all of this comes down to this question - Why don't I care about the stories Brust is telling me, when he is telling me? Where is the breakdown between writer and reader? I like the character of Vlad, and Brust does a good job of leaving hooks at the end of his books so you want more. But then the bait and switch ... you get more, but not of what came at the end of the last book.

BUT many authors have a publication order, a storytelling order, that is not chronological for the main character. And it works fine. I'm having trouble thinking of one at the moment ... but I know it works. So my questions to you: When should the story be told in an order other than chronological? How does the author make it work, keeping the reader interested and the tension up? How does the writer avoid giving a reader that 'bait and switch' feeling? Your thoughts?


Image Credit - Art:  My Secret Garden by janenorman on

My comments: I went looking for art that would express some of that sensation of being lost in a book. This piece does exactly that through a wonderful fantasy composition and amazing color. It also asks its own questions - is the person reading a journal, a spell book, fairy tales, or an ancient text of some kind? What books would exist in this culture, and what would be so compelling?


Kay said...

Interesting question creatively ... but it's too complicated for me. Give me plain old chronological.

Jaydee Morgan said...

I don't tend to read "series" books. From what you say, this would frustrate me as well. I'm a simple girl, give me a chronological timeline every time.

Amy said...

This out-of-order writing is tough to do well. I think it's hard just to write a good prequel that the reader cares about, since we already know what comes next.

There must be a clear and distinct reason to tell a story that happens before the main story takes place. I imagine that the reason you're peeved is because you don't know why you are going back in time once again. You don't feel invested in that story, and would have a hard time caring about those characters. That's my guess.

Bryce Ellicott said...

The consensus seems to be to present a story in chronological order, unless there is something specific and highly necessary you are doing by going back in time. And when you do it, make sure the reader cares about the story - that probably entails making certain new characters are introduced for much later in the timeline, or critical events are explained.